Terrorism: A Meaningless Term? I Think Not

Old News # 8, Monday, June 29th 2015


I would like to preface this Old News post by saying that I agree with the author of this article on the fact that people and the media do not apply the term “terrorism” to white male Christian perpetrators of what is clearly terrorism. I am not criticizing that part of this article, and as a matter of fact, I don’t feel I am criticizing this article at all, just a small part of it. And, please don’t get me wrong here. I am not trying to disprove anything in this article. And if I were doing that, I would be doing so by what is clearly a “straw man” argument. So again, I agree with calling bullshit on the way people only use the term terrorism for Muslims.

That said, I don’t think the term is meaningless. The first time that I heard the terms “terror” and “terrorism” critically analyzed was in Noam Chomsky’s Power and Terror. I completely agreed with the application of the term terrorism to the behavior of the United States military around the world in their so-called “fight for freedom.” And I still do. He basically says that blowing up cities and backing violent extremists in foreign countries is terrorism even if the United States claims to be doing it for supposedly moral reasons.

The terms terror and terrorism, in my opinion do have a meaning. Not only that, I think that they have multiple meanings, as many words do. I will focus on what I see as the two main definitions of terrorism for now.


  1. any act of aggression or violence in direct or indirect conflict with a power structure.
  1. any act of aggression or violence that serves to enhance the position of a power structure.

The author of the article states definition 1 explicitly:

…”any violence by Muslims against the West is inherently “terrorism,” even if targeted only at soldiers at war and/or designed to resist invasion and occupation.”

Of course, the author is not claiming definition 1 is true. Instead, he is claiming that since it is not universally applied to all aggression and violence, then it is meaningless.

It is important to understand that although the definition is not fair, it is still a definition. Understanding this is the first step in understanding the corruption of the power structure that created the definition.

You might be wondering at this point about how someone, even a power such as the United States, can “create” a definition. The answer is simple. All definitions are created by people and groups of people.

I know, it sounds wrong. But it’s not.

Clearly, merely stating the meaning of a word once is not the way we create meaning.

Meaning is created by usage. Usage is the ultimate way that all language derives its meaning. Basically, the more you use a word to “mean” some specific thing, the more defined it becomes. And when it is finally written down (which is not a requirement) it gains even more status as a definition.

So my solution to the problem of “defining” terrorism is not to claim that it is meaningless. Instead, I think, as Noam Chomsky states in Power and Terror, we need to continually use the word terrorism to describe the horrific aggression and violence that the US government and military exacts on many parts of the world. Not only is it a fair usage, it is an obvious fact.

Our words have power. And if we fight to expel a particular word from our own vocabulary while others use it for propaganda, then we lose a little of our own power in fighting against that very same propaganda.

In closing, I would like to say that terrorism certainly does mean something. It means many things. And if we are to gain any real ground against all forms of terrorism, we first have to be willing to admit that it comes in many forms, not just those convenient for our own agendas.

If we aren’t willing to do that, then the terrorists really do win.